FDCPA: Fair Debt Collection Practices Act

Woman takes advantage of FDCPA rights while paying a bill over the phoneImage: Woman takes advantage of FDCPA rights while paying a bill over the phone

In a Nutshell

Debt collectors sometimes use intimidating and downright illegal practices in their efforts to collect consumer debt. Fortunately, the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act offers protection from unfair debt collection actions.
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The Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, or FDCPA, is a federal law enacted in 1978 that outlines a number of your rights as a consumer when debt collectors try to collect certain types of debt.

When it comes to managing debt collectors, knowledge is your best defense. Read on to arm yourself with facts about the FDCPA and your rights as a consumer so that you can combat a debt collector’s bothersome — and sometimes illegal — collection tactics.

When, where and with whom communication is permitted

  • When: Collectors can’t contact you at an unusual time or place that they know would be inconvenient to you. They are specifically restricted from contacting you before 8 a.m. and after 9 p.m., unless they get permission from you or a court.
  • Where: If collectors are notified or otherwise have reason to know that they are not to contact you at your place of employment, then they’re restricted from doing so.
  • Whom: If debt collectors know that you have retained an attorney to handle your debt, then they’re only allowed to communicate through your attorney — as long as the debt collector can easily get the attorney’s contact info and the attorney responds. Your attorney can also give a debt collector permission to continue contacting you.

Also, debt collectors may not harass third-party contacts in an attempt to settle your debt. The only parties allowed to receive contact are the consumer themselves, the consumer’s attorney, the creditor, the creditor’s attorney, the debt collector’s attorney and sometimes consumer-reporting agencies (depending on your local laws).

As the consumer, you can refuse to pay the debt or ask that the debt collector stop contacting you. If you choose to go this route, you must respond to the debt collector in writing with your request to stop being contacted regarding the debt.

Under the terms of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, the collector has to stop contacting you, with two exceptions. For one, debt collectors have to tell you that they received your letter and won’t be contacting you again. They also can notify you if they take additional measures within the bounds of the law to collect the debt, such as filing a lawsuit against you.

One thing to remember: Acting to stop a collector from communicating with you doesn’t prevent the collector from suing you or reporting your debt to credit bureaus.

Mandatory practices

Any debt collector who contacts you for payment must share with you certain information about the debt. If collectors don’t give you this information when they first contact you, then they must submit the information to you in writing within five days of the initial contact. Here’s the info they’re required to give you:

  • The name of the creditor.
  • The amount owed to the creditor.
  • That you have the right to dispute the debt in writing within 30 days of the debt collector’s initial communication. If you dispute the debt, the debt collector is required to send verification of the debt or a copy of any judgment.
  • That you can request the name and address of the original creditor, if different from the current creditor.

If you make the written request within 30 days, the debt collector can’t contact you again until they’ve provided you with verification of the debt. This gives you a break from calls and can also allow you time to compare your records with the creditor’s or consult an attorney for legal guidance.

Prohibited practices

There are some things that debt collectors aren’t allowed to do at all.

  • Harassment or abusive practices — Debt collectors can’t intimidate you with physical violence, use obscene or offensive language, threaten to defame you to coerce payment, or repeatedly call or harass you or make contact without identifying who they are.
  • False or misleading practices — Debt collectors may not falsely represent themselves as anyone else, misrepresent the amount due to the consumer, lie to coerce payment, or provide any false documents to the consumer.
  • Unfair practices — Debt collectors may not collect any unauthorized fees, solicit a postdated check to intimidate a consumer, threaten to deposit a postdated check before the date on the check, or threaten repossession without the legal means to do so.

This article only scratches the surface of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act and its federal protections for consumers. Take time to review the full act — or seek legal advice if legal mumbo-jumbo is not your strong suit. The FDCPA is important, and you need to be familiar with its provisions to avoid making impulsive or pressured decisions.

Bottom line

Without question, non-stop calls from debt collectors are unwanted. Avoiding debt should always be a top goal. But if you find yourself in a financial bind and have debt collectors contacting you, you need to know your rights as a consumer under the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act.

Remember, collectors have limits on their communications with you, and they cannot use threatening or offensive practices or provide erroneous information to pressure a payment. If you feel you’ve been mistreated by debt collectors and believe they may be in violation of the FDCPA, contact the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the Federal Trade Commission or your state’s attorney general.

About the author: Sarah Schaut is a Canadian living in sunny Florida. She’s an economic crimes detective at a city police department and an expert in credit, fraud and mortgages. Read more.